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Critical Essay by Kenneth C. Mason
SOURCE: "Beautyway: The Poetry of N. Scott Momaday," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 61-83.
In the essay below, Mason provides an in-depth analysis of The Gourd Dancer, examining the major themes of each section and of the volume as a whole.
N. Scott Momaday's first full-length collection of poems was finally published in 1976. Previously he had published some eighteen poems in the chapbook, Angle of Geese and Other Poems. These poems plus two others make up part 1 of The Gourd Dancer, a book which is the summation in poetry of that evolution of ideas and verbal skill we have observed in prose in House Made of Dawn, The Way to Rainy Mountain, and The Names.
The Gourd Dancer clearly establishes Momaday as a poet of some stature and demands that the close attention given his prose be given to his poetry as well. The book presents a distinct and distinguished music in post-modern poetry and a fresh and compelling vision. Momaday has brought the same intense concision, the same scrupulous craftsmanship to his poems that he brought to his prose. More important perhaps, he has treated the themes of his prose with a poetic rhetoric of marked originality.
The Gourd Dancer is divided into three parts, each of which is dedicated to one of Momaday's three daughters. This tripartite structure is a departure from his prose works, which make use of a four-part division as a thematic device. Here, however, the structure is not so much thematically as chronologically determined. Each successive part investigates a different facet of Momaday's poetic consciousness, and each notes a progression in the development of a broad artistic sensibility. This does not mean that each new part leaves behind the concerns of past parts, but that the themes and subjects of each successive part are leavened with vital new elements to create a richer, stronger poetic voice.
Part I, "Angle of Geese," includes those poems we have often seen in anthologies: "The Bear," "Bueto Regalis," "Pit Viper," "Earth and I Give You Turquoise," etc. It is one of the best-known of these poems, "Angle of Geese," that we can turn to for an indication of the themes Momaday will be examining in this part. "Angle of Geese" evinces the qualities of precision and cervine grace that are the hallmarks of all Momaday's poetry. This poem (like most of Momaday's poems) is in syllabic verse: each quatrain is composed of alternating lines of five and seven syllables. Lines so short place great demands on the poet for exactness and compression of statement, and lend a certain tautness to the rhetoric of each quatrain (each of which is end-stopped). There is also the conscious use of alliteration: "Will lag in the wake of words," "The mute presence of mulls and marks;" and assonance: "The great shape labored and fell."
But more importantly we find the dense complexity and penetration of utterance—nearly, but never wholly obscure. The poem is highly serious: it charts the poet's reaction to death. The death is that of a friend's first-born child, and the occasion of the poem is the first meeting of the friends in grief. The first three stanzas are a subtle evocation of the psychology of that meeting: before the hard, ineluctable datum of death, they are initially chary of speech, but "custom" leads them to speak. Real communication though, is subverted by the stark consciousness of death—the force of its recognition is beyond the power of words to comprehend or express: "More than language means, / The mute presence mulls and marks." The friends are left to "take measure of the loss," to try to live with it. We are assured that, painful as this is, the poet does "find / The mere margin of repose," the least edge of acceptance.
How the poet finds it is revealed in the final three stanzas. The death of the child is related to the death of the "huge ancestral goose." The shooting of the goose is a reenactment of an ancient pattern from the poet's heritage. Appropriately, the poet is filled with wonder at the beauty and mystery of the geese. Their "symmetry" in flight suggests a transcendent order and harmony—a meeting of "time / And eternity." The dead goose is delivered from the accidents of time, it is "quit of hope and hurt." Its "gaze" is "wide of time" and "held" "On the dark distant flurry"—the symbolic angle. It is in this transfiguration of death that the poet finds solace for the loss of the child. Both deaths become part of the greater order of time's conjunction with eternity in nature.
A similar poetic structure is used in "Comparatives," another meditative poem on the meaning of death. In this poem death is seen as an ever-recurring process in the larger action of nature. First there is the death of the caught fish, which is the one startling circumstance on "the seaside / of any day." This reminds the poet of the fossil fish once seen far inland. The poet concludes that the dying of the present moment and the timeless, ancient death preserved in the rock are "the same thing, / an agony / twice perceived." Momaday's craft adds greatly to the impression of the identity of the two deaths by making the fossil fish seem vital and alive. This is conveyed by alliteration, which gives the lines describing the fossil a sense of urgency and immediacy: "a shadow runs, / radiant, / rude in the rock…." The succeeding lines (again, noticeably alliterative) in effect cancel this perception of animation in the fossil and leaves the reader with the objective perception of death written in rock: "fossil fish, / fissure of bone / forever." Momaday has allowed the reader himself to experience these two events as "the same thing," to see the present "agony" in the silence and hard stillness of the fossil in the rock.
The result of this imaginative perception of the ubiquitous presence of death is offered in the final stanza, in which this "agony" is viewed as "mere commotion," part of the ceaseless agitation and flux of material being. And this is all we can know or conclude about it; the naked fact of death is "perceptible—but that is all."
The two poems, "Angle of Geese" and "Comparatives," show that Momaday is primarily a meditative poet—working directly in the American tradition of meditative poetry. The predominant mood is quiet reflection; the tone is sober and serious. We can also say that Momaday is a metaphysical poet, since he seeks to explore the difficult and elusive nature of reality: not only the facts of death and mortality, but also those of life and the immortality of the moment. This last brings us to the second major intention of the poems in part I of The Gourd Dancer: to reveal something of the secret core of existence through the intense presentation of a single moment—through an act of imagination that magnifies and imbues this moment with a profundity of meaning and import.
"Pit Viper" is an especially effective poem of this sort. The poem captures in an instant of vision the beauty and dangerous power in nature's renewal of itself, the viper's sloughing of the old skin and the shining emergence of the new. The change is rendered in keenly descriptive lines, charged with the excitement of the reactivation of the creative process in nature. An indication of the adeptness with which Momaday suits form to subject is the first sentence: "The cordate head meanders through himself: / Metamorphosis." The meter places an end-stop after the first line, giving the word "Metamorphosis" in the second line a suddenness and impact that creates the very impression of quick transformation that the lines describe.
But with an intellectual subtlety that is a distinctive feature in Momaday's art, the poet turns from the viper, an instrument of death, to the poet's ability to concentrate force in language, giving his words the imaginative potency of the viper's bite: "Blurred eyes … have seen death— / Or simile—come nigh and overcome." Actually, the whole poem can be read as an elaborate "simile," a conceit about the poetic process and the latent power inherent in the poet's shaping of words. "Pit Viper" is an example of the complexity of thought and the suggestiveness of image that Momaday can achieve in the fewest possible lines.
"Pit Viper" succeeds well in presenting a dynamic moment of closely-rendered vision. Momaday offers even greater intensity in his treatment of Isaac McCaslin's first encounter with Old Ben in "The Bear." More than just the title suggests the identification of the scene in the poem with the scene in Faulkner's short story. The physical details of the bear's maimed foot and of his ghost-like coming and going are taken from the story. Further, Momaday's superb line drawing of a boy rapt in wonderment that faces the poem supports this identification. But just how much has Momaday borrowed from Faulkner? The encounter in the story is in actuality shorter than the poem:
He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off, and knew that the bear was looking at him. He never saw it. He did not know whether it was facing him from the cane or behind him. He did not move, holding facing useless gun which he knew now he would never fire at it, now or never, tasting in his saliva that taint of brass which he had smelled in the huddled dogs when he peered under the kitchen.
Then it was gone. As abruptly as it had stopped the woodpecker's dry hammering set up again….
This passage from the story is particularly helpful in explaining the question with which the poem begins. The "ruse of vision" refers to the fact that the bear is not really seen, but only apprehended intuitively. Yet that initial question is open to another interpretation, which can exist independent of any connection with the story. The "ruse of vision" is the image created in words by the poet, and the answer to the question, "What ruse of vision … / would cull and color / his somnolence," is the moment of epiphanic vision that is the poem.
Yvor Winters notes this about "The Bear" [in his 1967 Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English]: "The poem is more descriptive than anything else, yet in the third and last stanzas the details are more physical and indicate something of the essential wilderness." The bear in the poem, then, like the bear in Faulkner's story, represents the potent, primordial force of nature, and the poem offers a moment of insight, in which we understand something of the age and mystery of the land.
"The Bear" is distinguished for the strength and solidarity of its lines and the grace with which it carries its syllabic rhythm and rhyme. We might single out for comment two examples of Momaday's poetic command of his subject. The first stanza is notable for the sibilance of its lines, which creates verbally a dazzling sensation of wonder. Secondly, stanzas number three and five enlarge on the sudden coming and going of the bear given in Faulkner, with marvelous effect. These stanzas give the poem greater dramatic moment, and infuse it with a sense of the mystery and ineffability of nature. The final simile is not only rather ingenious, but also singularly effective in generalizing the mystery of the bear to include all of nature: "Then he is gone, whole, / without urgency, from sight, / as buzzards control, / imperceptibly, their flight." This lends the poem's suggestiveness far greater impact. "The Bear" is certainly one of the very finest of Momaday's early poems.
"Bueto Regalis" is a brief but startlingly vivid insight into a totally different aspect of nature. It is meant, like "The Bear," to present an epiphanic moment. But unlike "The Bear," its object is to give a potent sense of the raw wild strength in nature.
"Bueto Regalis" is wholly descriptive. As such, it meets Momaday's own requirement for descriptive writing [as outlined in an interview with Momaday appearing in the March 1973 issue of Puerto del Sol]:
I'm interested in description and when I describe something in writing I always ask myself if I have described what it is I set out to describe; of course, you can write beautiful description which is inaccurate but still beautiful. But my idea of writing good description is writing something accurately.
It is just its accuracy in description which is so impressive in this poem. Lines two and three—"What sense first warns? / The winging is unheard, / Unseen but as distant motion made whole …"—are remarkable for their realism and their apparent ease in handling a very difficult perception. Lines five through eight recall Hopkins' "The Windhover" in their sound effects and imagery, and not altogether to their disadvantage. Indeed, when we remember that Hopkins' poem is also wholly descriptive, we can see a similarity, in the intentions of the two poems. Hopkins makes his falcon a symbol of the glory of Christ, while Momaday makes his hawk an emblem of the physical glory of nature.
We can see, then, that Momaday has two principle concerns in Part I of The Gourd Dancer: to present meditations on death and mutability, and to offer instants of vision that penetrate to the very essence of nature. Both of these concerns are evident in what may be the strongest poems in this part, the four "Plainview" poems.
"Plainview: 1" is perhaps Momaday's most lyrically beautiful, yet also poignant, poem. In form the poem is a modified sonnet, written in seven heroic couplets. It is Momaday's only published attempt in this traditional form, but its success shows that he has fully mastered its difficulties. The poem's purpose is to offer an almost mystical insight into nature—a "plainview." Essentially, the poem is a description of the slow advance of a storm, and as such, it is telling in its realism. Yet the grave tone, the meditative mood, and the haunting, evanescent imagery suggest something far deeper.
The key is the magpies. They appear three times, and are seemingly a clear, distinct perception: there are eleven of them. When the storm breaks, however, we find that they are "illusion." So, the magpies come to symbolize the limited nature of human percipience, as well as the fundamentally illusory nature of material reality: i.e., material things have no reality per se, but only as they symbolize spiritual or ideal reality. Momaday makes much this same point in the third of his Santa Fe New Mexico Viva columns, where we see his attraction to a rather Berkleyan idealism: "A thing is realized by means of perception, and not otherwise. Existence itself is illusory; we inhabit a dream in the mind of God" [30 April 1972]. This idea is supported by the shimmering caducity of the images in the poem: "a wind informs / This distance with a gathering of storms / And drifts in silver crescents on the grass, / Configurations that appear, and pass." "Plainview: 1" allows us to see the whole panorama of the plains in an intensified moment of flux and change. Still, there is permanency too. Behind the transitoriness of the moment, there is the initially tentative, but later forcibly manifest, presence of the storm—the greater pattern of reality behind the ephemeral impressions.
"Plainview: 1" amply evinces the sureness of Momaday's poetic control, as well as the difficulty and depth of his perceptions. It is one of the finest of post-modern sonnets. In fact, stanzas two, three, and seven are reminiscent of Shakespeare's own sonnets in their measured music and grace.
"Plainview: 2" takes its form from the Native American oral tradition (which should not disguise its syllabic rhythm). It is a powerfully sustained elegy for the horse culture of the American Indian. It is a commentary on the death of a culture, of a way of life. The old Indian in the poem now lives solaced by drinking and the dream of drinking. But he challenges the reader (and we must assume, particularly the Indian reader) to preserve and hold the old life in memory. The exhortation, "Remember my horse," is repeated again and again like a drumbeat in the poem.
We can only realize the importance of this idea when we understand the significance of the horse to the Plains Indians. Momaday explains this significance in an early essay:
… the horse brought a new and material way of life. The Kiowa pulled up the roots which had always held him to the ground. He was given the means to prevail against distance. For the first time he could move beyond the limits of his human strength, of his vision, even of his former dreams…. But the greatest change was psychological. Seated behind the withers of a horse elevated to a height from which the far world was made a possession of the eye, sensually conscious of an immense fund of living power under him and nearly part of him the Kiowa was greater than he was. ["The Morality of Indian Hating," Ramparts 3, No. 1 (Summer 1969)]
The psychological destruction necessarily inherent in the destruction of the horse culture then, is staggering. This gives the overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss to the poem. The middle stanza is especially expressive of this loss: "A horse is one thing / An Indian another / An old horse is old / An old Indian sad."
This elegiac treatment of cultural death is reinforced by the movement of the imagery, very evident in the last stanza: first the horse is seen as vigorous and healthy: "running," "wheeling," "blowing," "standing"; then the horse is seen in images of death: "hurting," "falling," and "dying." The joining of the first two lines from stanzas two through eight creates a very swift, intense finale to the poem. The closing lines, moving from "Remember my blue-black horse" to "Remember my horse" to "Remember / Remember" is forceful and potent in evoking the theme. The drumbeats become more rapid, and suddenly stop. "Plainview: 2" as a whole is incredibly moving. It places the human experience in the plains. This experience is tragic. "Plainview: 3" returns to the impersonal view of the land of "Plainview: 1," which suggests an affirmation of the eternality of nature behind the human pathos. The poem is a brief, incisive succession of metaphors for dawn. It carries us quickly beyond the mere fact of sunrise to a joyous celebration of the spirit of the renewal, beautiful and harmonious, of the day. It is a poem of spiritual regeneration through the land.
"Plainview: 3" can also be read as prayer of praise to the sun. For, as James Mooney tells us in Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, the Kiowas were a sun-worshipping people: "The greatest of the Kiowa gods is the Sun; by him they swear, to him they make sacrifice of their own flesh, and in his honour they hold the great annual kado or sun dance." The note of praise is evident in the increasing vibrancy in the images of the poem. "Plainview: 3" is doubtless a minor effort; but it plays an important role in the development of the sequence.
"Plainview: 4" turns again to the darker vision of human experience. Indeed, the movement from "Plainview: 3" to "Plainview: 4" is a movement from the golden age of the Plains Indian culture to its death. The predominant tone here is one of remorse, of sad regret. Poor Buffalo's house is empty now. Yet the poet had known a time when it was filled with life, when the Kiowa captive, Millie Durgan, had lived there. The mood in the first part of the poem is wistful reflection. The mention of Millie Durgan leads to the jauntier ballad stanza on the captive. The tone now is light and happy: the time recalled is the heroic age of the Kiowas, when they commanded the prairies, stole captives, and relished the freedom of distance. Millie Durgan was stolen in 1864 at the age of 18 months. Mildred P. Mayhall; mentions her in her book, The Kiowas: "Millie (Sain-toh-oodie) grew up a Kiowa, married a chief, Goombi, had children, and only learned late in life of her true origin." So, Millie Durgan was wholly a Kiowa in culture.
The last part of the poem is heavily ironic in its statement. The poet hears "a music" "about the house"—the folk-song, "Shoot the Buffalo." Though this song gives a superficially lively ending to the poem, it lends a profoundly pathetic note to the poem's subject. The killing of the buffalo effectively marked the extinction of the old, nomadic life of the plains. Momaday says this about the destruction of the buffalo in "The Morality of Indian Hating": "Perhaps the most immoral act ever committed against the land was the senseless killing of the buffalo. The loss of the Sun Dance was the blow that killed the Kiowa culture. The Kiowas might have endured every privation but that, the destruction of their faith. Without their religion there was nothing to sustain them." The sequence closes then on a note of deep sadness, Together with "Plainview: 2" this poem offers a tragic meditation on the death of a great culture, a loss that transcends the personal and becomes a moral failure for all Americans.
This sequence of "Plainview" poems not only contains two of Momaday's finest poems, it also marks as a whole the most powerful single moment in part I of The Gourd Dancer. It also prefigures the dominant theme of part II: Momaday's Native American heritage.
"The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee" is Momaday's own song of joy, and it is particularly expressive of his Plains Indian heritage. In form the poem makes a playful glance at Whitman's catalogues, but it really reflects the oral tradition. The poem is about the imaginative integration of the self into the land. Momaday has identified his spirit with the land, and shown the beauty and psychic sanity that identification promises. That this integration is peculiarly an act of the imagination is shown in the last line of the first stanza: "I am the whole dream of these things."
Momaday has emphasized many times in his Viva columns his feeling of unity with and fulfillment in the land:
I came to know the land by going out upon it in all seasons, getting into it until it became the very element in which I lived my daily life. [25 June 1972]
And I too, happen to take place, each day of my life, in my environment. I exist in a landscape and my existence is indivisible with the land. [30 July 1972]
What really emerges from the poem's first stanza is Momaday's perception of the beauty of the land, and of its vitality. Momaday asks in his essay, "A First American Views His Land," [which appeared in National Geographic 150, No. 1 (July 1976),] where the Native American concept of the land derives from: "Perhaps it begins with the recognition of beauty, the realization that the physical world is beautiful." This appreciation of beauty has its moral aspects, too. Momaday explains the Indian view of the land and how it is achieved in that same essay:
Very old in the Native American view is the conviction that the earth is vital, that there is a spiritual dimension to it, a dimension in which man rightly exists. It follows logically that there are ethical imperatives in this matter. I think: Inasmuch as I am in the land, it is appropriate that I should affirm myself in the spirit of the land. I shall celebrate my life in the world and the world in my life. In the natural order man invests himself in the landscape and at the same time incorporates the landscape into his own most fundamental experience. The trust is sacred.
The process of investment and appropriation is, I believe, preeminently a function of the imagination. It is accomplished by means of an act of the imagination that is especially ethical in kind.
It is this very "investment" in the land, this celebratory affirmation of the spirit of the land that is the purpose and subject of this poem. The repeated line, "You see, I am alive, I am alive," emphasizes the fact that it is in making this imaginative investment in the land that man fully realizes himself as a living creature. The poem is truly a "delight song," a singing of the beauty of the union of man and land. It is a meditative poem, but unlike the other meditations in part I, it is a meditation on the meaning of life, not death. In part I of The Gourd Dancer, "Angle of Geese," we see the whole nature of human existence examined, both life and death. It is just these two themes that we find in the sister poems from The Way to Rainy Mountain, "Headwaters" and "Rainy Mountain Cemetery."
"Headwaters" is about the Kiowa emergence myth narrated in The Way to Rainy Mountain. The poem revisits—just as Momaday does in prose in the conclusion of The Names—the log in the intermontane marsh from which the Kiowas emerged one at a time into this world. The log is described in the poem, but the real theme of the poem comes in the final four lines.
The last lines evince the focus of the poem as the power that made the myth, which related conscious man to his universe, endowing him with identity and a place in the land. This power of the mind, the imagination, is awe-engendering in the endless fertility of its resources. Momaday surveys the physical scene in a finely drawn still-life and asks, "What moves?" His answer is a recognition and affirmation of the myth-making power: "What moves on this archaic force / Was wild and welling at the source." These lines are filled with the resonance of the spiritual health and strength of the Kiowa people. There is a suggestion of unbounded energy in the creations of the cultural mind.
Still, the poem is not merely nostalgic. For in the very imaginative act that is the poem, there is a recrudescence of the primeval power that shaped the original myths. And in the waters that "Stand brimming to the stalks," there is a hint that this power is still a dynamic force, a spiritual resource.
"Rainy Mountain Cemetery" is a searching meditation on death; in this case, that of Momaday's grandmother, Aho. The name of the poet's grandmother no longer stands as a symbol of herself, but of "this dark stone." Death "deranges" the possibilities of a life, precludes them ("the mind to be"), and they remain "Forever in the nominal unknown." The last lines of the first stanza reveal the pathetic position of the living, who, in trying to confront and understand the personal significance of a death, hear only "The wake of nothing audible."
In stanza two the eternal presence of the land is contrasted with the personal loss of death. The mood is one of resigned grief, of acceptance of the irrefragable obscurity of death. One instance of the subtlety of Momaday's craft is how the half-rhyme at the end of each stanza (the poem's only irregular rhymes) serves to create the feeling of painful and inescapable loss. This may show the influence of Emily Dickinson, one of Momaday's favorite poets.
We come nearly full circle in "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" to the themes we discussed in "Angle of Geese." Yvor Winters is certainly right in thinking this poem "Momaday's most impressive achievement" among his early poems; and Winters' remarks on the poem show great sensitivity. The poem's first two stanzas reveal the attitude of Christ toward his self-sacrifice. The first stanza enlarges upon the last moment of critical despair. In the "vibrant wake of utterance," Christ's outcry, despair is overweening; it "preoccupies, / Though it is still." It "preoccupies," that is, the poet, who is compelled by its power: it is a despair for which "There is no solace there," in the silence after the cry. There is no possibility of amelioration or assuagement.
The second stanza makes another comment on the silence after the cry. It is the "calm" of nature, a stillness in which the human mind can find no assurance or "peace" but in the face of silence or "solitude" itself. The poet turns to consider the sacrifice itself.
Christ, though to the onlookers who are excluded from his knowledge and despair, "Absurd and public in his agony," himself owns a moment of crystal lucidity: his despair at his imminent death is for Him, "Inscrutably itself, nor misconstrued, / Nor metaphrased in art or pseudonym: / / A vague contagion." This is the inner understanding that has nothing to do, really, with the outer spectacle. This is the moment of clairvoyant consciousness that so "preoccupies" the poet.
In the third stanza we turn from the mural and the thoughts it inspires to the poet's memory of the sea, the sea in which the poet has told us (in stanza two) that this same "calm" of despair is perceived. The sea, so "mute in constancy," represents the eternity that "The mural but implies." In meditating on the muteness of the sea, the poet comes to understand the reality of death: "Not death, but silence after death is change." In the "calm" then, of Christ's despair, and in the muteness of the sea, we have an apprehension of death—the reality that is in its stark fact, a "change" from life.
The fourth and fifth stanzas take us back into the scene described by the mural. In the meditative entrance into the painting, the poet knows for a moment the "eternity" implied by the scene depicted.
The final stanza reflects a moral dimension not hitherto evident in the poem. The concern with time in the preceding stanzas reminds the poet that "These centuries removed from either fact / Have lain upon the critical expanse / And been of little consequence." Man, perhaps because he has perceived only the "Absurd and public" aspect of the crucifixion, has learned little from the great act of suffering and sacrifice: "The void / Is calendared in stone; the human act, / Outrageous, is in vain." There is genuine pathos in the realization that not only have these twenty centuries been a moral "void," but that time continues, without abatement, with no moral transformation evident: "the hours advance / Like flecks of foam borne landwards and destroyed." The metaphoric return to the sea, here so utterly opposite, in its association, the serene sea of stanza three, creates a depth of suggestion and a structural unity in the poem.
"Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion" is a brilliant achievement in meditative poetry, begging comparison with the best poems of Theodore Roethke's "North American Sequence" or the finest of Robert Lowell's meditations in Lord Weary's Castle.
Part II, "The Gourd Dancer," departs from the metaphysical themes of part I and engages in a consideration of the subject Momaday is best known for: his Kiowa heritage. The first poem in this part is the title poem, "The Gourd Dancer." This is one of Momaday's two or three strongest poems, and certainly the outstanding poem in part II. It enunciates the themes of this second part, just as "Angle of Geese" enunciates those of the first part.
"The Gourd Dancer" is divided into four sections; section 1 is called, "The Omen." It is written in blank verse, and is very much akin to those poems of part I which describe an epiphanic appreciation of nature. The first line—"Another season centers on this place"—tells us that time has passed, and that the poem's subject, the poet's grandfather, Mammedaty remains only in memory. The next lines show the poet's identification with the land, which is said to be "like memory," an act of the mind.
The final two lines of the first stanza and the whole of the second stanza are descriptive. The appearance of the owl is the omen, though its meaning is obscure. In speaking of the Kiowas' religious beliefs, James Mooney makes a comment on owls that may be helpful here: "There is an indistinct idea of transmigration, owls and other night birds being supposed to be animated by the souls of the dead…." Thus the owl can function for the poet as a symbolic reminder of Mammedaty. The omen provides an occasion for the rest of the poem, which is three separate but related memories of Mammedaty.
Section 2 is called "The Dream." It is told in prose, and is in its narrative manner reminiscent of the stories in The Way to Rainy Mountain. The first lines are lyrically descriptive, telling of Mammedaty's building of his house—a house we come to know well in The Names. But the truly important lines deal with his "dreaming," which should remind us that dreaming for the Plains Indian cultures is equivalent to having a religious vision. Mooney explains that "dreams and visions are supernatural revelations, to be trusted and obeyed implicitly." Mammedaty dreams while dancing in the Gourd Dance: "He dreamed of dreaming and of the summer breaking upon his spirit, as drums break upon the intervals of the dance, and of the gleaming gourds." This dance leads to the dream and to union with the earth ("summer"). This brings us to the third section of the poem, titled "The Dance," written in free verse lines of increasing length in each stanza—which may be a reflection of the physical progress of the dance.
Momaday has devoted [his 23 July 1972 Viva column] to the Gourd Dance, relating the legend of the dance's origin, and telling of his own initiation in 1969 into the Taimpe (Gourd Dance) Society. He also offers a description of the dance, which should be of help in looking at "The Dance":
It is an ineffable music, low like thunder, and hypnotic. You become caught up in it, dancing, and it carries you away to the center of the world. For a time there is no reality but that, the pure celebration of your being in relation to the singing and the drums and the dance. It is the most profound experience of music that I have ever known.
Likewise, Mammedaty "dreams" as he dances, and becomes one with the center of reality; there is a pure identity of the land and the spirit: "The long-wind glances, moves / Forever as a music to the mind; / The gourds are flashes of the sun." The Gourd Dance unites the dancer, too, with the ancient, enduring traditions of his people: "He takes the inward, mincing steps / That conjure old processions and returns." The dance is the living evidence as well as the symbol of the strength and vitality of the culture.
The second stanza evinces how the accoutrements of the dance, the moccasins, sash, and bandolier, "Contain him [the dancer] in insignia"—symbolize the essence of the man who has given himself up to the dancing. Mammedaty's eagle-feather fan "holds upon the deep, ancestral air," again revealing the union in the dance with his heritage.
"The Giveaway," the final, prose section of the poem, may require some cultural background to be fully appreciated. Momaday explains in the same Viva column: "After each song there is a 'giveaway' ceremony, an ancient custom of the Plains whereby various people are honored through the giving of gifts." Momaday's whole poem first appeared in his column for November 4, 1973. But in an earlier column, he had described Mammedaty's dancing and the giveaway afterwards. The details are essentially the same as those of the poem, but the poem gives some a greater emphasis. For example, the earlier column reads: "Mammedaty's name was called out, and he arose and stepped forward." This moment in the poem is highly intensified. The cultural significance of the name is explained, and the calling of Mammedaty's name is given special importance: "Someone spoke his name, Mammedaty, in which his essence was and is. It was a serious matter that his name should be spoken there in the circle, among the many people, and he was thoughtful, full of wonder, and aware of himself and of his name." This enlargement upon the bare journalistic fact of the column not only serves to create a finer dramatic moment, it also reveals something of the man, Mammedaty. In similar fashion, the description of the black horse is lyrically intensified in the poem.
We must remember the absolute preeminence of the horse in Plains Indian cultures if we are to fully comprehend the meaning and force of the gift of the horse in the giveaway. Mooney's comments on the acquisition of the horse by the Plains tribes add to what we have learned from Momaday:
It is unnecessary to dilate on the revolution made in the life of the Indian by this possession of the horse. Without it he was a half-starved skulker in the timber, creeping up on foot toward the unwary deer or building a brush corral with infinite labor to surround a herd of antelope, and seldom venturing more than a few days' journey from home. With the horse he was transformed into the daring buffalo hunter, able to procure in a single day enough food to supply his family for a year, leaving him free to sweep the plains with his war parties along a range of a thousand miles.
Hence, the gift of a horse is the greatest possible gift; it is an event of the highest magnitude. The last sentence of the poem tells us that the gift "was for Mammedaty, in his honor," and that the poem is, too. "The Gourd Dancer" is a superb tribute to the man, Mammedaty, and it is a remarkable example of imagined recollection.
"New World" leaves the personal and historical for the mythical past, telling of primal man's first view of his pristine new world on earth. "New World" opens with the command, "First Man, / Behold," and the rest of the poem is an evocation of the world he beholds. The four sections of the poem are spliced into Momaday's essay, "A First American Views His Land," and Momaday's comments on the Indian's aesthetic, moral, and religious perceptions of the land illustrate well the values implicit in this poem. "New World" illustrates particularly well what Momaday says in the "first truth" of the Indian: "The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful; I delight in it; I am alive in it." The poem, with its crisp formalism (two beat syllabic rhythm), shows in a succession of quickly drawn but poignant images the beauty of the wild land, and the delight one can take in it. For one example we might take the almost Virgilian simplicity and lyricism of section 3: "At noon / turtles / enter / slowly / into / the warm / dark loam / Bees hold / the swarm. / Meadows / recode / through places / of heat / and pure / distance." There is no sense at all here of man. There is only untamed natural beauty.
The first section of "New World" presents a broad first vision of the new land. Sections 2-4 seek to capture the essential spirit of the land at three representative moments: dawn, noon, and dusk. The imagery for each section is appropriate, and there is no lapse in the purity of Momaday's vision in any section. Together, these three moments stand for a whole day and the day presented offers an integral vision of a sacred natural richness before the advent of the course of empire. "New World" is a poem of imaginative celebration of the earth. It resembles, earlier poems like "Pit Viper" and "Bueto Regalis" in that its form is based on what might be called a series of epiphanic perceptions of nature.
"Carriers of the Dream Wheel" defines better than any poem I know the spirit of the oral tradition. William Stafford, in his poem, "A Stared Story," addresses the Indian "survivors" of the twentieth century, who are "slung here in our cynical constellation." These people must now "live by imagination." Momaday's poem shows that it is the imagination that has always given life to Indian cultures. It is the "Wheel of Dreams," their "sacred songs" and "old stories," living orally, ever one generation from extinction, that expresses their reality, and enables them to find and feel a wholeness and meaning in existence: "This is the Wheel of Dreams / Which is carried on their voices, / By means of which their voices turn / And center upon being." The Wheel of Dreams, which is both the body of the songs and stories and the dynamic imagination that calls them into being, defines the reality of the First World: men "shape their songs upon the wheel / And spin the names of the earth and sky, / The aboriginal names." In The Names Momaday explains his belief that the real essences of things are inherent in their names. Thus, the great power of the Wheel that enables men to name things, and, in a manner of speaking, create or reveal the nature of the world.
The most evocative lines in the poems are the final four. They express just how the oral tradition sustained and renewed itself and gave life to the people. The contemporary relevance of these lines and of the poem is that it states how the old traditions can be preserved and regenerated today. Contemporary Indian poets are the current "Carriers of the Dream Wheel," and it is through their poems that contemporary Indians can define their reality and "center upon being." This is obviously what Duane Niatum had in mind when he used this poem as the title poem of his anthology of contemporary Indian poetry.
If "Carriers of the Dream Wheel" reveals the essence of the oral tradition, "The Colors of Night" presents it directly in eight brief prose stories. Each of these stories reveals a different aspect of the Indian world view, Section 1, "White," is based on a historical incident recorded by Mooney, and it is an excellent example of how the poetic imagination can shape historical fact to its own purposes. Here is Mooney's account:
In the spring of 1870, before the last sun dance, the son of the noted chief Set-angya ("Sitting Bear") … had made a raid with a few followers into Texas, where, while making an attack upon a house, he had been shot and killed. After the dance, his father with some friends went to Texas, found his bones and wrapped them in several line blankets, put the bundle upon the back of a led horse and brought them home…. While on a march the remains were always put upon the saddle of a led horse, as when first brought home….
What Momaday has added to this bare narrative is the father's emotional response to his son's death. The death is seen, not as a tragic event, but rather, as a transcendence. The boy has become part of the beautiful pattern of nature, beyond loss or pain; his bones now "gleam like glass in the light of the sun and moon," and the boy has become "very beautiful."
Section 2, "Yellow," also treats the theme of death's transcendence. A boy drowns, but he does so fulfilling a vision that is beyond place and time: "His vision ran along the path of light and reached across the wide night and took hold of the moon." Perhaps because of the power of the vision, a grace is found beyond death; the boy is transformed and a black dog emerges on the other shore. The dog howls all night at the moon, showing the continuing truth of the vision. As in all stories of transformation, there is a distinct air of mystery here, a mystery that excites the imagination, even as it precludes certitude.
Section 3, "Brown," is a somewhat humorous parable on the pursuit of knowledge. Quite simply the story shows how mere empiricism, minute knowledge of external detail, cannot reveal the essence of a thing. The boy looks hard at the terrapin and memorizes its face, yet "he [fails] to see how it was that the terrapin knew anything at all." This knowledge requires a spiritual insight, an intuitive rapport with nature and a humility before its mysteries.
Section 4, "Red," however, shows how knowledge can be misused and what the consequences are. The man has the "powerful medicine," and he is able to fashion the woman out of leaves. But when the man abuses the woman, the result is destruction and death. She is "blown apart" by a whirlwind and scattered as leaves across the plain. The whirlwind represents the power and potency of the sacred, a force that is always removed from man's complete comprehension.
Section 5, "Green," is the shortest and most enigmatic of the stories. But like section 2, it testifies to the truth of visionary perception. Though the vision of the tree and the shape made of smoke are objectively qualified by the statement that they are "only an appearance," the last words of the sentence affirm the strength of the vision: "there was a tree." This section of the poem is a glimpse into the nature of extra-visual knowledge, and it is imbued with a sense of mysterious potency.
Section 6, "Blue," also treats an instance of visionary perception. Here, however, the reality of the perception is denied. If the tribe is right in denying the vision, the story illustrates that a requisite of visions is that they not be too obscure to be of any use: "'After all,' said an old man, 'how can we believe in the child? It gave us not one word of sense to hold onto.'"
The irrational nature of human evil is examined in section 7, "Purple." The man kills a buffalo for no reason but to see it die. The tribe is ashamed of and grief-stricken at the deed. But the blood of the buffalo runs into the sky and is transformed into the stars. In its etiology the story reaffirms the power of the sacred even over the most heinous human crime.
That the mystery of the sacred is real and that it interpenetrates the affairs of man seems to be the point of section 8, "Black." The long black hair, the "shadow which the firelight cannot cleave," is a good emblem for this mystery. This section of the poem enunciates a theme of the whole poem: there is a mystery in the nature of things which can be partially penetrated or intuitively comprehended—as through stories—but never fully dispelled; and it should not be. The eight stories or myths of this poem are each colors of the night, explorations of this mystery, and each has something unique to reveal about the Indian's world view.
The last four poems in part II, "The Gourd Dancer," are more contemporary in their subjects. But they are nonetheless related to the themes of the preceding poems in this part. Each of the poems presents an insight into nature or place that is particularly Indian. Part II, as we have seen, basically tries to present the philosophy and world view of the Native American. The poems are a rich and valuable extension of the themes Momaday treated in The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Part III of The Gourd Dancer, "Anywhere Is a Street into the Night," represents a final maturity in Momaday's poetic development. Now the poet is the master of his craft and all his circumstances. Anything can provide a subject for a poem—"anywhere is a street into the night." The poet can write about the intrusion of crows in a winter solitude, an old woman sitting in a room, two women who differ radically in personality, an observance of an acting class, the danger of praise to the artist, or the social isolation of the tourist visiting the Soviet Union. Anything that appeals to the poet's imagination can provide an entrance into a poem. This is the theme of the poem that gives its title to this section. In this poem the poet waits at the window (the symbol of poetic observation of life), and of itself the desire for creation comes. The poet feels the "old urgency," and "anywhere / Is a street into the night, / Deliverance and delight…." The mastery of the poet is not only seen in this imaginative ability, but also in his recognition that each poem, each street into the night of the imagination, "will pass"—that for the poet there can be no standing on the achievements of any one poem; he must return another time to the window and wait.
Given this new poetic assurance, it is not surprising that Momaday can treat his Native American themes with a new freshness and intensity. "The Burning," like "Plainview: 2," is an elegy for the heroic age of the Indian cultures. The poem is a conceit: the apocalyptic destructiveness of the fire is a very apt metaphor for the ravaging advent of the white man ("always alien and alike"). The poem catches with great success the tragic innocence of the Indians as they learn of the approaching disaster, watch for its arrival, and finally succumb to the inexorable will of its drive. What is most striking about the poem is the ease and naturalness with which Momaday sustains the conceit. The imagery is stark and suggestive, and the detail precise and telling. The final lines are extremely moving in their desperate inevitability: "And in the foreground the fields were fixed in fire / And the flames flowered in our flesh." "The Burning" is a new and significant direction for Momaday in his treatment of native materials. It is also a fine attempt at a mature summation of the themes he has treated before.
"Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu" is a major poem, summing up Momaday's ideas about the land. It is a joyful meditation on the beauty of the earth. The real subject of the poem, though, is the special bond and communion between two artists; it is fitting that Momaday should find Georgia O'Keeffe a kindred spirit. In his [10 December 1972] Viva column he has spoken of her with admiration: "In her the sense of place is definitive of her great, artistic spirit. She perceives in the landscape of New Mexico an essence and quality of life that enables her to express her genius, and she, too, is a native in her soul." Like Momaday, Georgia O'Keeffe finds her inspiration and her spiritual sustenance in the land, and she is identified with it.
Because they are open to the beauty of the earth the poet and the artist stand in good relation to it. They share an appreciation of the dried snake bones, the cow and sheep skulls, and most of all, the small stones (which are the very emblem of the land). The poet wishes "to feel the sun in the stones," the life source and principle. He gives a stone to the artist and she "[knows] at once that it [is] beautiful," just as she knows the greater forms of the earth at Abiquiu. The final lines evoke the timeless impersonality and grandeur of grandeur of the land forms in winter.
As the first lines of "Forms of the Earth …" tell us, the poem is an act of imagination. It is in the imagined recreation of experience that the poet can find and reveal the meaning of experience. And it is in the making of the poem, that the experience is given a timeless form. Momaday has achieved this timelessness in "Forms of the Earth at Abiquiu."
Momaday closes The Gourd Dancer with the short poem, "Two Figures." Brief as this poem is, it is singularly poignant. The poet faces his own mortality, faces it with a stoic acceptance of its inevitability. Though his poems have an independent life of their own, the poet is inescapably involved in death and time. "Two Figures" rounds the collection very nicely back to the themes of part I, making the structural circle that is the hallmark of all Momaday's books, the circle of wholeness and completion.
The Gourd Dancer is an organically unified body of poems tracing the evolution of a new and accomplished voice in American poetry. It is a summation of nearly twenty years of writing. Through his skill and the power of his rhetoric Momaday is able to make the themes that emerge distinctly his own: death and time, the beauty of the land, and his Indian heritage. The Gourd Dancer will surely bring the attention to Momaday's poetry that has already been awarded his prose. One only hopes that we will not have to wait another twenty years for his next book of poems.
This section contains 8,808 words
(approx. 30 pages at 300 words per page)